Monday, May 31, 2010

THE BISHOP'S MAN by Linden MacIntyre (2009)

Set in the mid-1990s on Cape Breton, THE BISHOP'S MAN gives an insider's perspective from RC priest Duncan McAskill who has been used by the bishop of Antigonish to clean up previous messes, by which, I mean abuse scandals.

Father McAskill moves back to a small community in which he was raised and quickly comes to appreciate the generosity and forthright approach of the local folks. Young Danny, however, seems to have troubles beyond what appear on the surface.

MacIntyre's timely novel that won last year's Giller Prize does not pussy foot around the legacy of sexual abuse which currently rocks the foundation of the RC church, especially in eastern Canada. It is an important story that is written in haunting prose.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

HEAD SHOT by Quentin Jardine (2002)

Scottish DCC Bob Skinner is at a conference in Malaysia about to give a paper about drug trafficking when he receives a call that changes his plans. His American in-laws have been murdered in upstate New York. Driven by rage Skinner flies to the USA and muscles in on the investigation, that is soon co-opted by the FBI since his father-in-law had been a Senator with secrets on the side.

What appears at first to be a burglary gone awry soon becomes obviously a professional hit job with an axe to grind against members of the Democratic Party that traces back to a coterie of men who played Sunday football with then-President JFK. When others are killed in similar circumstances, Skinner quickly decides that this is a situation rife with dirty cops and agents and subsequently trusts no-one as he digs for the truth behind what lead to the untimely deaths of his kind in-laws.

There is a subplot back in Edinburgh involving married coppers and an extended Italian business clan that doesn't add anything to the story and could well enough be left out of HEAD SHOT and made into a novel on its own. I'll give Jardine one more try to get the plotting right.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


After 48 years of marriage, Betty finds herself on the short end of the divorce stick having to evacuate her comfortable Upper Westside apartment and to move in with her adult daughters Annie (a librarian) and Miranda (a literary agent nearing bankruptcy). They are the the three Weissmans of the title, an ironic pun completely intended since they are anything but wise.

Betty accommodates to her new circumstances fairly well after purchasing an essential Chanel suit in which to meet the divorce lawyers. Annie and Miranda are less adaptable, especially Miranda who virtually ignores the calls from her own lawyer warning her of her imminent bankruptcy.

Throw into the mix various unsuitable paramours including a Hollywood-bound playboy, an illustrious writer and an epidemiologist and you have the stable of character foils necessary for each of the women to finally come into their own.

I really enjoyed Schine's snappy style and have already requested copies of her previous novels through my local library.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

CHERRY by Mary Karr (2000)

Mary Karr lured me in with her muscular prose and unforgiving attitude, especially when it comes to facing the truth about herself in her most recent memoir LIT. So, it was with equal parts trepidation and excitement that I peeled open the cover of CHERRY, the unflinching look at her sexual coming of age from middle school through the end of high school.

It's not like I really needed reminding why I don't want to be 15 again, but what a relief to know that those turbulent days of adolescent hormonal upheaval are entrenched firmly in my past.

Nobody writes about herself with such honesty and vibrancy. If you haven't discovered Mary Karr's prose yet, you've got to bother.

Monday, May 17, 2010

THE POSTMISTRESS by Sarah Blake (2010)

It is 1940, France has fallen to the Germans and FDR promises Americans that their boys will not need to serve in foreign wars. Enter the unflappable Frankie Bard, a radio producer working in London for Ed Murrow--yes, that Murrow. Her dispatches during the Blitz reach across the Atlantic into the hearts of Americans as she reports on ordinary folk going about their business in extraordinary circumstances. Through her flatmate Harriet, Frankie becomes interested in the unreported story of the Jewish refugees streaming across Europe and soon becomes obsessed with recording their voices.

Back in a small town near Cape Cod, the town mechanic Harry Vale searches in vain for German U-Boats that he is convinced will surface off the coast and bring the war to his doorstep. Iris James, the postmistress in Franklin, is certain that Harry is right. When Frankie Bard shows up mysteriously in Franklin for respite in the summer of 1941, Harry and Iris befriend her and in time realize that in spite of their instincts to tell the truth or to deliver the mail no matter the circumstance, they are unable to do just that when it means protecting someone as vulnerable as Emma Fitch.

This beautiful and haunting novel reminds us how we bear the wars that go on around us as our ordinary lives rumble along from one day to the next. Although THE POSTMISTRESS is firmly set in the 1940s, it could be set today as the contemporary resonances are emotionally true.

If you are a fan of literary fiction, this book should find a place in the pile of must-reads beside your bed.

FRACTURED by Karin Slaughter (2008)

Apparently, Slaughter is the author's real name. It's almost laughable in a writer of thrillers.

In an upscale Atlanta neighborhood a teenaged girl is brutally murdered. When her mother Abigail comes home and discovers the newly bludgeoned corpse of what she believes to be her daughter and there is a young man kneeling over her covered in blood, she exacts her own form of vigilante justice. In abject terror she strangles the stranger to death.

Two cases of mistaken identity complicate the murders and Abigail discovers that the police believe her daughter has been abducted. In the matrix of forensic evidence, Detective Will Trent sees something that others do not. It is Will's conviction that Emma is still alive, being held ransom, if he could only figure out who may have abducted her and why.

What kept me interested in this mystery was the subplot thread of life in care and what happens to children who were raised in foster homes and how they transition to adult life and responsibility with varying degrees of success and functionality.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A QUESTION OF BELIEF by Donna Leon (2010)

Picking up another mystery featuring the ever-gallant and charming Commissario Guido Brunetti is like finding a shaded patio on a blazing day in Venice with pitchers of chilled Sangria and a good book your only required company.

At the opening of A QUESTION OF BELIEF Brunetti is planning a trip with Paola and the children to the north of Italy where they will be able to wear sweaters in the evening and snuggle under eiderdowns and escape the baking heat that is their hometown in the height of the tourist season. And, Brunetti manages to pack for his trip and even get on the train out of Venice before the murder of a town clerk requires his return to the Questura to help solve the crime.

In addition to the murder, Brunetti has also agreed to help a colleague, Inspector Vianello, with a family problem. It seems Vianello's favourite aunt has been hoodwinked into giving large sums of cash to an astrologer who provides spiritual and health advice to the especially vulnerable aging population with guidance from the Tarot and the assistance of a corrupt, but doting, medical lab technician.

As usual, Brunetti has his hands full, and as usual his professorial wife has her nose in volumes of Henry James, or when she's feeling particularly sassy, his brother as well. In addition to providing an intelligent story, Leon also lingers in cafes and in restaurants and over family meals. Food is revered as much as the words used to describe it in scintillating detail.

MEN AND DOGS by Katie Crouch (2010)

Since I enjoyed Katie Crouch's debut novel so much, I was delighted to find her new one on the shelves at my local library.

Hannah Legare is a 30-something entrepreneur who built a hugely successful business shilling high-end sex toys with her equally clever husband Jon in San Francisco. Due to her obsessive nature, Hannah is unable to let go of her belief that her father simply disappeared two decades previous, instead of the community knowledge that he drowned and the family dog survived. As she loses perspective on her own life, Hannah makes a series of bad decisions that lead to a frightening accident that forces her to take refuge back in Charleston where she's monitored by her mother, brother and stepfather.

Offering up antic and flawed characters in Hannah and her patrician South Carolinian family (gay brother Palmer, strong-willed mother Daisy and stepfather Dewitt), Crouch manages to provide a story that is as humorous as it is tender as she contemplates big questions of family, loyalty and faith.

ASH WEDNESDAY by Ethan Hawke (2002)

Protagonist Jimmy is AWOL from the US Army chasing his girlfriend Christy whom he recently ditched for no really good reason. At least he has the decency to realize he made a mistake and does his darndest to rectify the gaffe and finally make a real commitment to someone he surely loves.

Christy is pregnant with Jimmy's child (though it's a bit of news she's kept to herself so far) and is determined to make it home from Albany to the heart of Texas come hell or high water.

Jimmy catches up with Christy and the two embark upon their shared journey in a souped-up wreck-of-a-Chevy Nova and along the way are transformed from obsessed lovers to real family.

Hawke captures the energy and excitement and fear on the precipice of building a life together, come what may.

Friday, May 07, 2010

THE HOTTEST STATE by Ethan Hawke (1996)

I recently watched the Richard Linklater film BEFORE SUNSET and was reminded of Ethan Hawke's subtle performance and noticed his name in the screenwriting credit.

THE HOTTEST STATE is his debut novel coming-of-age novel about William, a 20-year-old Texan now living in New York and trying to make it as a stage actor. William falls in love with an unlikely woman and becomes obsessed with the idea of building a life together.

With disarming emotional honesty, Hawke captures the transitional moments of late adolescence/ early adulthood when life and love seem rife with wonder and restlessness.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

GIRLS IN TRUCKS by Katie Crouch (2008)

Sarah Walters is a Charleston debutante whose perfectly beautiful and smart older sister has fallen off the rails at Yale, planning to run off with a brilliant grad student who looks and acts like an African prince.

Although Sarah tries to adhere the code of decorum prescribed by the Camellias (the deb society to which she belongs as her mother did before her and so on through the generations of genteel Carolinians), she finds it difficult what with the hormonal complication of summer romances with wild Island boys.

When she leaves the South for college and then a career in New York City, Sarah discovers a world very different from the one she was raised to believe in. A particularly toxic affair with a blue-blood called Max leaves Sarah alone to find her way back to who she truly is. On her journey of self-discovery Sarah also discovers truths about her mother that were loosely veiled all along.

GIRLS IN TRUCKS is a delightful and assured debut novel that will have me turning the pages of Katie Crouch's next books.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

THE DEVIL'S TEARDROP by Jeffery Deaver (1999)

It's New Year' Eve 1999 and an early morning attack on the Washington Metro leaves dozens dead and fear rippling through the streets. In a written message to the mayor's office a criminal mastermind demands $20 million by midnight or he will unleash the robotic killer to slay many more innocent people.

In a quick twist, the extortionist is snuffed out in a freak accident and the sociopath who does his bidding prepares for the midnight massacre.

Enter Special Agent Margaret Lukas of the FBI who calls upon Parker Kincaid, a retired agent and top forensic document examiner, to help track down "the Digger." There are three more deadlines and as each is met, more civilians are slaughtered in public places as they are in the midst of welcoming in the New Year.

The forensic document detailing had me captivated throughout this 400+ page turner.

BREAK NECK by Erica Spindler (2008)

Detective M.C. Riggio and her partner Kitt Lundgren are on the trail of a faceless predator who leaves bloody corpses of seemingly innocent victims in his wake, including a clean-cut college boy with no criminal record, a good-hearted lawyer and then one of Riggio's cousins, a student who earns extra cash by doing the books for a few local businesses.

The key to finding this emotionless killer lies in the stolen computers of all of his victims that lead to a burgeoning network of false identities and the surprising hub of a centre for troubled youth run by a kind-hearted philanthropist.

After Riggio's fiance and cousin are slain, the stakes are raised and trapping Break Neck becomes all-consuming. Riggio may lose her job, her best friend and her life.